Of all the exhibits in the Wood Brothers Museum in Stuart, Va., it is one of the littlest ones that tell one of the biggest stories.
It’s a little home-made car that Leonard Wood built when he was just 13 years old. It’s a marvel of shade-tree engineering and a sure sign that even as a young teenager, Leonard Wood had a rare gift when it came to things mechanical.
Wood used the same ingenuity on his little car that he did over the years working on the No. 21 Ford and Mercury racecars that won 96 races on the series now known as Sprint Cup.
Even before he built his first motorized vehicle, Wood had a method of transportation all his own. It was a crude, Fred Flintstone-like cart that he called a "trucker wheel wagon." The wheels were made from narrow slices from a freshly-cut log. The driver sat atop the rear axle and steered by using his feet to push the front axle left and right.
Eddie Wood, Leonard’s nephew, recalls that as a child, when he was roaming the hill behind his grandmother’s house, they would sometimes stumble upon old oil cans, left there by young Leonard after he lubed his car for a run down the hill.
"Those cans are probably still there. I would reach down to pick one up, she would say no, no, leave it there, Little Leonard left that." Eddie Wood recalled.
But as young Leonard started into his teen years, he yearned for a better car. Fascinated by the motor bikes and other mechanized means of travel that he saw on the roads around his home, he set about designing and building his own – at age 13.
"I wanted something with a motor and four wheels," he said. "So I came up with this idea of how to make it. These days you would have all kinds of engineers and professionals to give you advice on how to do it, but I just made it all myself. I didn’t have anybody to coach me on how to build it."
He started with some sprockets and chain salvaged from an old Army surplus amphibious vehicle commonly known as a "duck."
His brother-in-law gave him a four-cycle Johnson gasoline engine that once powered a washing machine. The bearings came from a 1939 Ford transmission, the pulley from a water pump on a 1940 Ford engine.
The spindles were made from parts from an old mechanical brake system.
The steering wheel was as simple as could be – a piece of rod, bent in a circle and braced with scraps of metal. The steering shaft he mounted to a rusty, pitted piece of angle iron. He used valve springs from a Lincoln Zephyr for the springs on the front axle and fashioned the gas tank from a sheet of brass. A piece of fan belt rubbing against a pulley when the pedal was depressed served as a friction brake.
"I didn’t have any money," Wood explained. "The only thing I bought was the wheels."
When he got his car finished, it would run 15 miles per hour, but a change of pulleys would boost the top speed to 25 mph.
"It was a very fun piece back in those days," he said. "It wasn’t designed off a go-kart because there was no such thing as a go-kart back then."
Wood said that once he got his car finished, he immediately put it to use.
‘I rode it constantly, until I started racing," he said. "I rode it up and down the dirt road a mile or two from the house and around the parking area there at the house."
Once, he bolted on the 25 mph pulley and made a road trip, on the main highway near his home. His destination was the garage where his father worked.
"It was about four and a half miles away," he said.
Among the people he encountered on the road that day was the principal of the local high school, who was quite impressed.
"He got up and made a big speech about me and that little car," he said. "He talked about how unusual it was for someone to make something like that."
Wood said he continues to be amazed by the old washing machine engine.
"It runs as smooth as can be," he said. "It’ll idle down so quiet you can’t hear it running."
Wood said the engineering that went into that engine nearly a century ago was far ahead of its time. Even the butterfly in the carburetor was designed so there was little restriction of the air flowing into the engine,
"I thought it was kind of neat how nice it was," he said. "And it was made nearly 100 years ago."
After Leonard Wood moved on to working on race cars, his little car was stored for years in the ceiling of the shop. About 15 years ago, his brother Delano convinced him to restore it.
"I put it back running again, and then put it in the museum," he said.
But before he retired the little car again, Leonard Wood and his nephew Jon Wood both took a few laps in it.
"It runs slick as a button," Leonard Wood said. "It was a lot of fun."
And whether it’s for fun or for trying to make Sprint Cup cars run faster, Leonard Wood has spent a lifetime thinking of innovative ways to maximize performance. "I’ve always been interested in making mechanical things and making them perform better," he said.